In a few months, my son and I are supposed to visit Spain. Four years ago a different son and I spent some time in Barcelona, a great city that I really enjoyed and hope to one day visit again. The upcoming, and very much up in the air, trip will give my youngest son and I two weeks in Spain divided between Madrid, Seville and Valencia. Other than a brief, early morning layover at the bus station in Madrid,* I’ve not been to any of these cities and I’m really excited to explore them.
Prior to a trip I often try to read works set in the locale I’ll be visiting. I lean towards historical fiction or memoir on these occasions and really enjoy gaining a sense of my destination in advance. I think this tradition began before I first visited Ireland and was told that I “simply must read Leon Uris’ Trinity.”
Many years ago when I was in my hardcore Hemingway phase, I recall reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, a story set during the Spanish Civil War. Beyond that I’ve read nothing about Spain or the conflict between Republicans and eventual Dictator Francisco Franco. After reading Rita Sepetys’ The Fountains of Silence, I now know things I had never previously heard of or even imagined.
This historical fiction novel tells the story of Madrid in the late 1950s. Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until 1973 and his policies, including the acceptance of Catholicism as the country’s only sanctified religion and the punishment of dissenters and rebels, created an environment in which fear, hunger and poverty were as prevalent as the Guardia Civil, the Spanish equivalent of the Gestapo.
The Fountains of Silence introduces the reader to Daniel, an American aspiring photojournalist of 18 and Ana, a young Spanish woman working at the newly opened to tourists Hilton Hotel in Madrid. The gap between their socioeconomic statuses could not be larger, as Daniel’s father is an oil tycoon in Texas and Ana’s family struggles to meet their own everyday needs while continuing to pay an outrageous monthly sum to keep their departed family members in their own individual graves.
The story is intense with a palpable sense of desperation and anxiousness that comes from abject poverty. Reading about the conditions in which Ana and her family reside is heartbreaking, particularly when contrasted with the opulent lifestyle of Daniel’s family. But, it isn’t all desperation and sadness. No, there’s a sense of pride and appreciation of tradition that demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit beautifully and inspires.
The individual families’ sagas would have been enough to hold my attention, but the author also included well researched information about some of the human atrocities committed by Franco’s regime. It was common practice to exploit the lower class and offspring of former Republicans, extracting precious money from them for services not necessarily rendered and keeping them in perpetual poverty. But there was something even worse.
Often, as in 300,000 + documented instances**, when poor women or those associated with left wing rebels, would deliver babies in medical facilities they would tragically lose their newborns to a birth injury or other unexpected cause. These bad outcomes occurred often and devastated and devout families felt compelled to bury their precious babies in individual caskets and grave sites maintained by the government at an annual tax. Many of the coffins buried and financially supported were in fact empty.
This book told a story in both words and the mental images created by photographer Daniel as described by the author. It’s powerful and rich and makes me so intrigued to see Spain with more knowledgeable and open eyes. Even if it doesn’t happen this year.
*a long story involving too many Picassos, too much sangria at lunch and not enough time to get to the airport.